John Toohey // Montreal, Quebec

Contributed by John Toohey from his collection

Ghosts of Griffintown: Irish Boxing in Canada

When boxer Jimmy McLarnin was a contender in the 1920s, journalists couldn’t agree as to where he came from; some claimed he was born in Belfast, others in Dublin. All agreed that his family emigrated to Vancouver, but once he moved to the U.S. he was sometimes labelled a Los Angeles fighter. Irish, Canadian, Irish-Canadian, or American: whichever nationality the writer ascribed to him revealed more about that writer than it did McLarnin, which, in its way, was the point of boxing. It was always about the tribe: Irish, Jewish, Italian, Black, White, Hebrew, Catholic or Protestant. Atomised further, fighters were defined by their neighbourhoods. Coming from one side or the other of a street could carry a weight as heavy as ethnic identity or religion.

While McLarnin was rising through the ranks, and sportswriters were still disagreeing over his origins, the Griffintown Boxing Club had emerged as a centre for Montreal’s Irish community. Based around the dockyards and railways on Montreal’s southwest, Griffintown and neighbouring Point Saint Charles and Goose Village were petri dishes for inhabitants who saw little salvation from factory labour except what sport offered. But the boxing club performed a more vital role than churning out willing fighters.

On 4 May 1929, the Montreal Gazette ran an article on a night of boxing at the club. The fighters were between eight and twelve years old, which suggests emphasis on enthusiasm above skill but, more pertinently, girls and boys performed a scene from A. A. Milne’s Make Believe, followed by Irish songs and dances led by Rose Sullivan and Jimmy Carroll.

Boxing was integral to the Irish experience in Montreal, not because of class but the tribalism. It allowed people to unite behind a figure, who was obliged to carry their expectations in his gloves, and too bad if he let them down.

It remained an aspect of cultural identity into the 1960s, by which time the Shamrock Gym on Centre Street in Point Saint Charles was the place for adult boxers to train. Around the corner, on Wellington Street, was the Olympic Tavern, also known as the Bucket of Blood. Reputedly the roughest drinking hole in North America, it was a notorious hangout for Irish labourers: in oral histories held at Concordia University, French speakers describe walking several blocks out of their way on a Friday night to avoid it.

In the late 1960s, fights were broadcast from all over the globe into living room TV sets, diminishing boxing’s tribalistic allure. Coincidentally, Goose Village was razed and factories at the Point began closing. Families moved away, breaking down the distinct identities of some neighbourhoods. Today, pet groomers and nail bars, the hallmarks of gentrification, have replaced the local butchers and haberdashers. The buildings survive though little else remains. Boxing’s Irish tradition is just another ghost now.

John Toohey